The French Revolution was a chaotic, bloody, and incredibly complicated mess—for both the Church and the people of France. It may very well be the closest the Church has ever come to being annihilated.
French Society and the Causes of the Revolution
The system of French society at the time was called the Ancien Regime. It was divided into three estates—the clergy (0.5 per cent of the population, owning up to 30–40 per cent of land), nobility (about 1.5 per cent of the population), and the rest all belonged to the third estate (owning about 35 per cent of land).
The monarchy at the time consisted of King Louis XVI and his young queen, Marie Antionette, who was quite uninterested in political affairs.
Catholicism was the state religion, and it had a lot of influence, privilege, wealth, and land. It oversaw hospitals and education, enforced the status quo, and most of its higher-ups were nobility. Not only did the church take in tithes, but neither the first nor second estates paid many, if any, taxes at all. Protestantism in France had been forbidden since about 1685, so Catholicism was a monopoly in many respects.
You can already see some problems with this system. But these weren’t the key causes of the Revolution, though you could definitely argue that it enabled some of the larger problems. The larger problems are as follows:
Participation in the American Revolution had left France essentially bankrupt, having cost up to 1.3 billion livres alone. The Seven Years' War and the War of the Austrian Succession had also cost France another 2.8 billion livres. France had a pretty poor financial system already, so this really brought it down.
Lenders increased interest rates because of the higher risk in lending to France. So, in an attempt to save their dying economy, they placed taxes upon the Third Estate—taxes that were already disproportionately high compared to their income. This did little to flatten the curve, especially since the wealthy were out acting like nothing was wrong.
Louis didn’t really want to rule, and he wasn’t very decisive either. This kind of leadership was less than ideal for a kingdom in crisis.
The way the Estates-General was structured was also a contributor, as each estate only had one vote—which meant that the first two estates (accounting for 2–3 per cent of the population) could outvote the third estate.
There was tension between the bourgeoisie and the nobility. The bourgeoisie was basically the middle class—the more wealthy peasants. They would attain noble status by marrying a poor noble, which helped them both by making the noble wealthy. The tension was in the fact that a lot of nobles didn’t like the bourgeoisie entering their ranks, and the bourgeoisie knew about their attitude towards them.
The poorer people were starving and becoming restless. In 1789 alone, wages fell by 25 per cent and bread prices rose by 88 per cent because of poor harvests. Because bread was the staple food of the French, Bread Riots broke out.
You also had Enlightenment ideas coming into France, with its message of liberty, independent thought, religious tolerance, and questioning tradition. A lot of these ideas inspired Robespierre, who we’ll talk more about later.
To summarise, France was in a financial, political, and social/cultural crisis.
The Revolution and New Government
The two key events that really kicked off the Revolution were the Tennis Court Oath and the storming of the Bastille.
In 1789, King Louis called the Estates-General to address the national financial crisis. This was the legislative body consisting of representatives of the three estates. Representatives for the Third Estate wanted the other two estates to pay taxes. They also wanted to reform the governing system so that the votes were counted by heads rather than estates.
Louis felt threatened by their radicalism, so he locked them out of the meeting place, but they simply met in the tennis court next door and vowed to continue meeting until they had a new constitution.
This was the Tennis Court Oath and the birth of the National Assembly.
The next month, royal troops began to surround Paris. The people formed the national guard and fought back. They raided the military hospital for muskets, then they stormed the Bastille for gunpowder. The Bastille was a symbol of royal despotism and was taken apart brick by brick by the people. They brutally stabbed the governor of the Bastille to death, decapitating him and parading his head on a pike. Something similar would happen to the Bastille guards and the mayor of Paris.
The Bastille only housed seven prisoners at the time it was stormed, and they were released by the crowd.
The fact that the National Assembly did not rebuke this violence would probably be what encouraged the violence that followed—for example, the Women’s March on Versailles later that year that would capture and bring the monarchs as prisoners to Paris. There was also the Great Fear, involving peasant riots and violence, lasting through July and August. The new government created what would become known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
It was a statement of democratic principles grounded in Enlightenment ideas. It emphasised equal opportunity, liberty, popular sovereignty, private property, freedom of religion, etc.
The Declaration also meant that the Church no longer had a say in public matters. The Declaration was significant in its failure to replicate what the Americans had achieved in their Declaration. The First and Second Estate's privileges were abolished.
In 1790, the government dissolved the Concordat that had defined France’s relationship with the Pope since 1516. Monastic vows were suspended, monasteries were suppressed, tithe collection was abolished and properties were confiscated.
In an attempt to nationalise the church, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy was also passed. It decreed that the priesthood was a civil body, so clergy had to be selected by the people and paid by the state. Clerics had to swear an oath of loyalty to the French Constitution, and dissidents were treated as enemies of the state and were forced to resign.
The number of bishops was also reduced from 135 to 83. This created a divide in the church between jurors (constitutional priests) and non-jurors (refractory priests). France moved from a Catholic constitutional monarchy to an atheist republic.
Understandably, the Pope condemned the Civil Constitution.
The following is a table to make sense of France’s politics during this period. Note how chaotic it was in regard to its organisation. As the Estates-General broke apart, France moved on from the Ancien Regime and create the National Assembly, which lasted for approximately three years.
The Legislative Assembly came after that, and it was even more radical than the government before it, lasting only a year before they got rid of the monarchy altogether.
Out of interest, the September Massacres were a series of killings of Paris prisoners. A lot of clergy were targeted around this time—about three bishops and 200 priests were killed by angry mobs over a forty-eight-hour period. It was probably here that those who had looked favourably upon the Revolution would quickly think otherwise.
The National Convention was even more radical.
This was probably the worst it got, with Robespierre’s "Reign of Terror". This went on for about three years before the rise of the Directory, which was less radical but still corrupt and unstable and was easily overthrown by Napoleon after four years. Napoleon then established an empire and made things more stable for France.
Many looked favourably upon the Revolution at first (free the Church from enthralment with the state, clergy live more modestly, Church reform, nations as an ‘ardour for liberty’), but soon realised the violent reality (clergy flee, de-Christianisation).
Robespierre and the Reign of Terror
Now let’s take a look at the darkest the Revolution got—where it reached its most violent. This was mostly during the time of the National Convention.
The Reign of Terror began in 1793 with the execution of the monarchs (though you could argue that it began with the September Massacres), and it ended with the death of Maximilien Robespierre in 1794. The massacres and executions that occurred were born out of anti-clericalism, revolutionary sentiment as idealised by Jean-Paul Marat, and the contrived accusations of the ironically named Committee of Public Safety.
Marat was murdered quite early into the Reign of Terror (depending upon where you date it), but he had been an active public figure early on.
He founded a popular news source called the People’s Friend, and he would write radical articles that attacked the wealthy. It was his writing that had a major influence on the Women’s March on Versailles. His writing was paranoid, angry, and spiteful, and he saw violence as the path to liberation from oppression.
He was eventually murdered by Charlotte Corday, a woman whose fiancé had been executed, but by that time, the mentality had been set and the Revolution was already being bloodied.
The two most influential political groups were the Jacobins and Girondins. The Jacobins were radical, encouraged violence, wanted to centralise power in Paris, and instigated the Terror (Robespierre and Marat were among their numbers). The Girondins were moderate, royalist sympathisers, who spread power in regional areas (this group included Corday).
Among these groups, there was a with-us-or-against-us attitude, and victims of the guillotine would include clergy, nobles, conspirators, defenders of those who opposed the Revolution, and any person who appeared to threaten the republic in any way.
But what’s surprising to note is that most of those executed were members of the Third Estate, having been accused of hoarding, treason, counter-revolutionary activity, or whatever seemed justifiable to the Committee of Public Safety. About 60 per cent of guillotine victims were peasants/labourers.
Within nine months, about 50 000 people had been executed—many without trial. That’s about 180 people a day on average. Some estimates suggest that, proportionately, clergy suffered the greatest loss.
The De-Christianisation Agenda
As should already be clear, the Church faced a lot of hardship during the Revolution.
De-Christianisation began with just targeting Catholicism, but it slowly became Christianity in general. Revolutionaries were quick to want to nationalise the Church with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy—that the Pope’s influence in France was subject to the state.
Gallicanism was the belief that popular civil authority (often represented by the monarch's or the state's authority) over the Catholic Church is comparable to that of the Pope. Church property was confiscated and sold at public auctions.
The state took control of birth, marriage, and death registers. Education was nationalised, marriage became a civil procedure, and divorce was legalised. Strangely enough, many clergy agreed or were forced to marry.
The Church had been affiliated with wealth and the monarchy for so long that, for the revolutionaries, the belief was that oppression was a result of a belief in God and that Christianity was counter-revolutionary.
In this sense, atheism was seen as the liberator. In reality, there were a number of clergy who supported Enlightenment ideas and the revolution.
We should also note that a lot of de-Christianisation was motivated by the seizure of Church gold and silver. But it did get to a stage where they were basically just trying to push the Church out entirely—often by replacing it.
The Gregorian calendar was replaced with a French Republican Calendar, which ultimately failed. To abolish Sunday worship, months were rearranged to contain three “weeks” of ten days apiece—thus designating every tenth day for rest. Street and place names with any kind of religious connotation were changed. Iconography and external signs of worship (e.g., crosses, statues, bells) were destroyed.
Religious holidays were banned and replaced with civic worship holidays (such as the Festival of Reason) or non-religious holidays (to celebrate harvest, for instance).
The “Cult of Great Men” replaced the veneration of saints, and the use of the word “saint” was forbidden.
Many church buildings were turned into “temples of reason” for the Cult of Reason—most notably Notre Dame Cathedral. Every city and village had to house an “alter to the fatherland” and conduct July “Federation Month” patriotic rites. It was an attempt to make patriotism the new French religion.
Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety would later institute the Cult of the Supreme Being, but it failed pretty quickly.
Local people often resisted de-Christianisation and would force clergy to conduct mass again—usually in underground churches. It had gotten to a point where Jesuits were heavily persecuted, and refractory clergy, along with those who helped them, were liable to death on sight. In fact, even constitutional clergy faced persecution. By the end of the decade, about 30 000 priests had been forced to leave France, and those who had refused had been executed.
There were political figures who believed that the revolution had been a failure as far as religion was concerned and feared that de-Christianisation was breeding resentment.
The intensity of de-Christianisation lessened with the Directory as the governing power, but a lot of anti-Christian mentality lived on, so their freedoms were still heavily restricted up until the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte who formally ended the de-Christianisation period in 1799.
The Rise of Emperor Napoleon I
I find Napoleon a fascinating figure, despite his many flaws.
He was well-read and very familiar with philosophy and Greco-Roman history. He admired figures such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Rousseau, and Voltaire—and this became very apparent in his career. He was an intelligent, ruthless, and charismatic guy, and there’s a lot to say about him, so I’ll try and keep it to his influence on Christianity and his social reforms.
Though he was himself more of a sceptic-agnostic, he believed in religious liberty and understood that religion was a powerful institution that could enforce moral behaviour and social stability.
He understood that only the Catholic religion stirred the emotions of the people, could effectively mend the religious divisions of the revolution and support the authority of the new regime.
He only intended to restore Catholicism to a certain extent, not bring it back up to its Ancien Regime privileges. This was made obvious in the Concordat of 1801, in which Catholicism is referred to as the religion of the majority of the French, not the state religion. The concordat reversed many of the anti-clerical revolutionary laws passed during the Revolution and reestablished Catholicism’s distinguished religious position amongst the French.
This was good for Napoleon as well, as he used the concordat to gain popularity amongst French Catholics, in many respects.
It included the Organic Articles. The Church didn’t like these, but they were passed anyway, allowing the state to monitor Catholic and Protestant activities. As his empire expanded, France took possession of many Protestant-majority areas. Napoleon had a favourable attitude towards Protestantism.
The Organic Articles, in the concordat, recognised Lutheran and Reformed churches. Ministers were often paid by the state, and there were 137 Reformed pastors on the payroll by the end of Napoleon’s reign. French protestants were also emancipated during Napoleon’s reign, though they did face persecution the year after his exile.
The presidents of 27 Reformed consistories were present for Napoleon's coronation. His coronation did not include the traditional sacramental rites of other imperial coronations. This indicated a decrease in the papal role/tradition of consecrating the new emperor. That Napoleon crowned himself symbolically meant that he did not owe his crown to any divine power and the Pope held no power over him.
Napoleon was quite an egotistical guy, yet somehow this would often benefit him.
Pope Pius VII was very involved with France, though he and Napoleon often were in conflict regarding various political and religious matters—Napoleon wished for him to comply with his demands, and the Pope often refused to give way. This did negatively impact relations between them, and Pius VII eventually excommunicated Napoleon.
Napoleon had intimidated the Pope by pointing canons at his papal bedroom, and, without instruction, a Lieutenant kidnapped the Pope—but Napoleon did not offer release. He was moved through the territories, and Napoleon’s supporters pressured him to yield power. The Pope was eventually freed by allied forces.
This said, when Napoleon was exiled to St Helena, the Pope asked the British government to treat him better, and Napoleon would reconcile with the Catholic Church and receive the Sacraments before he died.
I’ll also quickly note that Napoleon improved France’s educational, financial, and judicial systems. He also promoted a building boom in Paris and had a sewer system constructed under the city that is still used today.
He also established the Napoleonic Code, which would be the prototype for later civil law codes. It gave permanent form to the great gains of the revolution—namely individual liberty, freedom of work, freedom of conscience, religious freedom, and equality before the law. He promoted a culture based on merit and achievement and spread Enlightenment ideas across Europe.
Napoleon didn’t start many of the wars he fought in, but he did win them (European neighbours tried to restore the monarchy and prevent the spread of ideas of liberty).
The Concordat of 1801 lasted until 1905, with the Law on the Separation of Church and State, making it Napoleon’s most durable civil achievement after the Napoleonic Code.
Picture above: For interests’ sake, this is what the Holy Roman Empire looked like pre-Napoleon, and this is the Confederation of the Rhine post-Napoleon. It became part of the German Confederation after Napoleon, and the borders remained pretty much the same. From about 1800 territories to 30 states. This change built up ideas of nationalism and religious freedom.
 The Napoleon Tiara had as its main jewel those from the Tiara of Pius VI, which had been looted previously.
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Zarzecny, Matthew. 2003. Religion in Napoleonic France. 2003. https://www.napoleon-series.org/research/napoleon/c_religion1.html.
Marlin, George J. 2017. “The French Revolution and the Church.” The Catholic Thing. July 26, 2017. https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2011/07/14/the-french-revolution-and-the-church/.
Brown, Stewart. 2006. “Movements of Christian awakening in revolutionary Europe, 1790–1815.” In The Cambridge History of Christianity. Edited by Stewart J Brown and Timothy Tackett, 7:575-95. Cambridge University Press.
Piedra, Alberto M. 2019. “The Dechristianization of France during the French Revolution.” The Institute of World Politics. November 13, 2019. https://www.iwp.edu/articles/2018/01/12/the-dechristianization-of-france-during-the-french-revolution/.